The iPhone was almost a rotary phone and it’s a terrible thing to behold
You love your iPhone: the form factor, the user interface, the just straight-up coolness of it all. But a peek into the early days of the now-ubiquitous device reveals a startling truth.
It was almost awful.
These days we take the look of the iPhone as a forgone conclusion. Sure, there’s always the question of curved or square edges and whether the back will be glass or aluminum, but the smartphone’s general shape and touchscreen front have in many ways come to define Apple’s aesthetic.
But it didn’t have to be that way. In fact, it almost wasn’t. An excerpt from a forthcoming book by Motherboard editor Brian Merchant about the development of the iPhone, titled The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone and published by The Verge, provides us with an up-close-and-personal look at what you’d probably be carrying around in your pocket right now… had things gone just a bit differently.
It’s not a pretty picture.
Let’s take a magical journey down memory lane back to the year 2005. Apple had recently partnered with Motorola to put iTunes on the Rokr phone, but the results were less than inspiring. In fact, according to Merchant, Steve Jobs hated the final product.
This is not gonna fly,” Jobs reportedly told Tony Fadell, an Apple executive. “Im sick and tired of dealing with bozo handset guys.
Fadell explained that in some ways this negative experience was what finally convinced Jobs to go forward with what would eventually become the iPhone.
That was the ultimate thing, Fadell explained to Merchant. It was, Fuck this, were going to make our own phone.
Having already seen huge success with the iPod, the natural inclination was to basically just stick a phone in the music player. And so they did. A 2006 Apple patent shows us what almost was.
It’s not pretty.
We put a radio inside, effectively an iPod Mini with a speaker and headphones, still using the touch-wheel interface, David Tupman, who headed iPod hardware at the time, told Merchant.
The device would make phone calls, and Apple actually manufactured a few hundred of them. That’s right, the original iPhone was a rotary.
Jobs himself was a reportedly a fan, and tried hard to make the device work. The designers, however, knew it was a failure.
It was just obvious that we were overloading the click wheel with too much, Andy Grignon, an iPhone engineer, explained to Merchant. And texting and phone numbers it was a fucking mess.
Thankfully, the iPod-based iPhone was pushed aside in favor of a version of the touchscreen device we know today.
But that’s not the only big reveal in Merchant’s book. Jobs wanted complete control of the design of the smartphone without any service providers stepping in and mucking things up. He felt so strongly about this that he thought about buying cellular spectrum. If he had gone ahead with this idea, Apple would have ended up as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). Cingular, however, was willing to give Apple free reign over the phone’s design in return for exclusivity. As a result, Jobs abandoned the MVNO plan.
This, along with many other details, are packed into The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone. The book provides us with a frightening glimpse at what could have been. As we read this story on our rotary-free screens, let’s all give thanks that the iPhone turned out the way it did.